The August 3rd Rolling Stone cover which features the face of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been the subject of public outrage. Considering I was born and raised in Massachusetts my Facebook news feed is likely filled with more criticism of the cover than those not from the area, regardless, I think such outrage is in need of a reality check. Some that are offended by the cover claim that it sends the wrong message to children. Others claim that the picture selected for the cover portrays Tsarnaev as a “rock star”. Ed Kelly, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, called the cover “insulting.” Boston mayor Thomas Menino called the cover “a total disgrace“. To my ears, neither the claims nor any of their justifications seem to have much force. In what follows I will provide some reasons for those who are offended to reconsider their concerns.
First, Rolling Stone has done this before, that is, post a picture of suspected and/or convicted terrorist or murderer. They did it in the 70’s with Charles Manson. There was no outcry then, why now? In general, magazines do it all the time. Remember when Timothy Mcveigh committed the horrendous Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and dawned the cover of Time? That picture was also a personal shot and not a mug shot (see below). So, why the sudden burst of moral outrage with a suspected terrorist on the cover of a popular magazine? I am at a loss. Especially when the right corner of the cover calls him the ‘Bomber’ even though he has not yet been convicted. This suggests to me that the magazine is not attempting to glamorize the suspect.
Some have claimed that putting him on the cover “will create a sense that this admitted murderer is appealing and if you are considering committing a crime it could bring you notoriety”. In response, and to be clear, Tsarnev has not “admitted” to murder. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges that were brought against him. And, it’s a known fact that if you commit a crime in this day in age you will get extensive media coverage. Making the cover of Rolling Stone does not seem to add much to that.
That said, even if he admitted to the murders I think it is important for the public to see his face. Some people have criticized Rolling Stone for the picture itself, as it makes him look like a ‘real’ person. I, on the other hand, think that it’s important for the public to see him as he looked in real life and not ONLY as he looked in mug shots or right before the attacks. He is a ‘real’ person. He had friends, hobbies, and the like. The face of a “monster” can and oftentimes DOES resemble people we encounter daily. It’s important for the public to realize that. Once realized, I think a lot of misplaced prejudice against certain ‘looks’ could go by the wayside.
I understand that the topic is sensitive, however, contrary to the claim made by Ed Kelly in a recent CNN interview that “…it disturbs us that our media chooses to celebrate it”, I don’t see this as a celebration. In fact I see this as a reflection and investigation on what went wrong for Tsarnaev and what can go wrong for other vulnerable teens. Kelly told CNN that “using Tsarnaev’s booking photo might have been one thing, but a photo that shows “the innocence of youth” gives the wrong message”. I don’t think that it does. The message I got from the cover was one of sadness, not of celebration. How could someone who looks like an ordinary citizen commit such acts of hatred and carnage? It’s one thing to see his mug shot, he looks different almost scary, but quite another to see him as others saw him before the attacks. Seeing him as a ‘real’ person is important. It’s important for U.S. citizens to realize that terrorists come in all shapes and sizes. They come from all age groups, skin colors, and, some even look attractive. In response to the public outcry Rolling Stone issued a statement, below is a quote from that statement:
“The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day…”The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.”
I couldn’t agree more. The photo does not glamorize Tsarnaev what it does is show him as a ‘real’ person. It humanizes someone who we all want to look at as less than human. But, the fact that he is human should open our eyes.
One last point. This young man has not yet been convicted of the crime. Though I share the public opinion of his guilt as the evidence against him seems daunting, he has not yet been found guilty. And, given that there has been so many negative photos posted it seems only fair to post photos showing a different side of him (though I’m not sure I see a different side when the word Bomber is placed on the side of the photo). Not because seeing him as a human will get him off the hook but because everyone deserves a fair trial. Pictures of the accused should not be one-sided this will only be used as ‘evidence’ for conspiracy theorists looking for reasons to spin a story about how Tsarnaev was treated with a lack of fairness.
To recap, I do not agree with the outrage directed at Rolling Stone Magazine for putting Tsarnaev on the cover. I think it is important for the public to see Tsarnaev as he saw himself. The piece didn’t celebrate Tsarnaev nor did the cover. The cover clearly states “Bomber” and calls him a “monster”. Given that he has not been convicted this can’t read as anything other than a genuine piece of journalism trying to uncover what it was that went wrong in this boys life for him to perform such a disgusting act.
I would love to hear from those who are outraged in the comment thread so that I can better understand where it is coming from. As of now, I’m at a loss.